Máté Hollós’ conversation with composer József Soproni
on his 24 preludes and fugues
Twenty-four preludes and fugues... Gigantic undertaking. In the 20th century only Shostakovich and György Geszler took on the challenge. In the 21st century József Soproni is the first to rise to it – will anyone follow? He blazes his own trail: he holds Shostakovich in high regard, but didn’t study his series in any depth, and so far he didn’t look at Geszler’s work at all. In 2015 and 2016 four outstanding pianists: Mariann Ábrahám, András Baráth, László Borbély and András Wilheim performed the entire series at a live concert. Three of them, Ábrahám, Baráth and Borbély now recorded on CD 18 pieces as homage to Soproni.
József Soproni, now 87, continues composing with the same ardor as ever. I visited him in his home on Rózsadomb, to talk about the cycle he wrote.
– We talked a lot about the pieces while I was composing – and he points to his wife, Zsuzsa, a piano teacher. – Her vast knowledge of music and professional sensibility is reassuring to me. She perceives what’s behind the music: does a given note make sense and if yes, what is it? She judges the form: isn’t something too much, or too little? It is good that our musical tastes are identical.
– And do you accept her advice?
– Jóska ponders things a lot – interrupts him Zsuzsa. – He keeps thinking things over and over...
– And then I re-write them – continues the composer. – I’m the biggest consumer of manuscript paper...
– When did your close connection to Bach start?
– I played a lot of inventions in the music school at the city of Sopron. Later, in the early 40s I started to play the organ in churches. Inheriting the role of Katalin Komlós’ father I played at the student masses until 1947 – when they were banned. After being admitted to the Academy of Music, as a pupil of János Viski, I composed 15 two-part and 15 three-part inventions (unfortunately only the two-part inventions survived). [The curriculum required only a few two-part and three-part pieces. – H. M.] That means I got very close to Bach from the beginning, not only emotionally and intellectually, but also from the point of view of the logic of music, of the method how the inner lines of force should be kept alive. How the line progression of parts unavoidably dictates one and only one specific note at a particular location. I heard a couple of preludes and fugues by Shostakovich performed by Tatiana Nikolayeva: they didn’t sound baroque. They are serious compositions, but nowhere near to Bach’s spirit. They encouraged me to try to tell in my own way what does Bach mean to me. Writing the first 12 pieces was a two-year process. I decided to ignore the character difference of major and minor keys, since this would have narrowed my latitude a lot. I didn’t start to compose in the order of the circle of fifths. Given the great influence the Mass in B minor had on me I started with the piece written in B. At the same time, instead of a seven note scale I was thinking in terms of a six note scale: the prelude and fugue in B was followed by D flat, E flat, F, G, A, then I continued from B flat, C, D, E, F sharp and A flat. Although I didn’t use major and minor, the tonality is dominated by the major. Moreover, the cadence in general is an open, bright major, in both the preludes and fugues. As an effect of the whole tone scale I never write F and G after C, D and E, because it would immediately imply the I.-IV.-V.-I. functionality; instead, I jump to F sharp because the tritone enhances the tonal level. It provides a sense of elevation not only in the melody, but in the bass, too. But all this is not a theoretical concept, that’s how I hear it. The imitation doesn’t always start from the fifth or fourth either; I remember how fresh it sounded when I started it from the tritone. It’s a different perspective.
– And how did the 12 preludes and fugues turn into 24?
– I started all over again. Having composed the series of 12 pieces and seeing that people began performing them had a very positive effect on me. My inner drive kept me excited.
– When you used the same key for the second time, did you reflect to the corresponding earlier piece?
– He barely remembered them – adds his wife. – So much so, that while getting ready for a surgery he kept repeating: I still have to write the A flat! I had to put the piles of note pages in order and in the process I found the prelude and fugue in A flat. Actually, unusual for him, he even wrote on the page that he finished the piece in our house at Zsennye. Mistakenly, he wrote the pieces in G twice, too.
– Yes, and I rearranged the earlier one as a movement of my Sonata No. XXI.
– Listening to the recordings I wondered what was more important to you: the spirit of the „fugue” or „Bach’s” spirit?
– Bach’s spirit. Is that how you felt?
– No question about it.
– More than that: I had Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn on my mind, too. I played Mendelssohn’s prelude and fugue in E minor back in music school. And Liszt’s B-A-C-H... Liszt was sort of a pretext for me. I felt the only way to face those masterpieces is to chain them to myself. After all, how attractive the atonality hidden is the B-A-C-H theme is!
– I remember when you called our attention to this in your class on 20th century composing at the Academy of Music.
– And this already leads to Bartók, to the fugue in the opening movement of the Music for strings, percussion and celesta.
– Since you mentioned Bartók: since Bach and the baroque there were quite a few developments in fugue composition. Just to mention two pinnacles: Beethoven and Bartók. Didn’t they influence your preludes and fugues?
– Maybe Liszt, Schumann, obliviously. The construction of the fugue is what attracted me.
– Now that the cycle of 24 is finished, do you feel that something is settled, complete in your oeuvre?
– This way of thinking is part of my life. In my 12 four-hand pieces that I just finished I once again wrote a prelude and fugue. The latitude for the parts is much broader there, but the material isn’t dense and care has to be taken that the hands of the players don’t get in each others’ way.
– We already discussed your fugues. As for your preludes, what was your intent: how should they be different from each other and how should they relate to the fugues?
– I didn’t relate them to each other, only to the respective fugues, to establish the necessary contrast. In the preludes I didn’t aim for figurative motions like the ones Bach applies. My goal was euphony and an intelligible texture of musical sentences. I wanted to make the cohesion points of the individual building blocks palpable. All my life I’ve been attracted by euphony – in a broad sense – and wouldn’t have wanted to compose speculative music. I didn’t want to map a mechanized world. I tried it early on, I have shown it to Viski back at the Academy of Music, but I chose a different path. I like to write music that one can follow.
– By now you have 21 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. How many of them are still waiting for their first performance?
– The eighth quartet and all starting with the twelfth. Perhaps the Kruppa String Quartet will now perform the XVIth, but in the meantime I already started thinking about the seventeenth. There are quite a few sonatas still in the drawer.
– Listening to your responses it appears to me you don’t really care how many of them are still unknown to the public.
– Sometimes I wish I could listen to my compositions, but alone, with no one else hearing it. Then I would be confronted with what should I have written differently. In any case, when I look back at my compositions, it’s like going to a composition class to myself – I’m dissecting them with the criticism of a teacher. But to answer your question: there’s no longing for publicity in me.
– Alluding back to the concepts of the fugue: József Soproni, late „comes” of „dux” Bach, I wish that your compositions find their way to the public!
24 PRELUDES AND FUGUES, I. and II. Series – Selection
József Soproni: Prelude and Fugue in E (II. Ser.) András Baráth, piano
Fordította: dr. Dávid Gábor
Translated by: dr. Dávid Gábor
Dr. Dávid Gábor
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